Olivia Sudjic’s electrifying and widely acclaimed debut novel, Sympathy, is truly a book for our contemporary times. A heady and provocative mix of obsessive love, family secrets, and the danger and allure of living in the digital age, Sympathy follows a young Englishwoman as she travels to New York and fixates on a Japanese writer whose life carries strange parallels to her own, and who she sees as her “internet twin.”
Recently, we spoke with Olivia about her perfect train read, the wonder of a literary out-of-body experience, and the joy of reading Tolkien in as many entertaining voices as you can possibly muster.
Featured illustration: Lorenzo Gritti
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What’s the book on your bedside table?
Well, there are a lot on my bedside table. In fact, my bedside table is books. And it just gets smaller or bigger, depending. I'm reading Megan Hunter, The End We Start From, which is feeling weirdly appropriate right now, post-Brexit and in Trump World. It's gripping for me in the same way the last book I read and really loved, Grief is the Thing with Feathers, was gripping. It's got that punchy mix, sort of poetry, and you can read it almost like reading haikus, so it's perfect for being on the train.
What’s the one book you tell everyone to read?
Lydia Davis' only novel, The End of the Story. I started telling people to read it after breakups; for some reason, I thought it was very appropriate. That novel, I absolutely loved. I love all of her writing and her short stories. There's something about the way she writes that makes you feel like you're having a simultaneous out-of-body experience—like you're looking down at yourself reading it, and at the same time, you're fully rooted in yourself.
Name three characters from literature or authors (dead or alive) that you’d want in your ideal book club?
I would invite Antoinette, who obviously is also Bertha Mason, from Wide Sargasso Sea. And I’d invite Isabel Archer from The Portrait of a Lady, and Jane Austen, because she’s one of my favorite authors.
What word do you love and why? What word do you hate and why?
Oh god, I can answer these at the same time. So, I was walking down the street with my dad when I was young, and I remember saying to him in a precocious way, “Dad, what's your favorite word?” And he was like, “Pellucid, which means crystal clear, like clear water. What's yours?” I don't even know where I plucked it from, but I said, “cunnilingus.” He did a double take, and I, in that moment, realized I didn’t actually know what it meant, I just liked the sound of it. And he was like, “Do you know what it means?” And I said, “Yeah...” thinking, “Fuck, no, I don't.” So I said, “It's a plant in Harry Potter!” He says, “Are you sure?” And I was like, “Yeah, I'm completely positive.” And then I forgot all about that experience until I was 16 and found out what cunnilingus was. So, my favorite word is cunnilingus and my least favorite word, or vice versa, is pellucid.
What’s the one book you love to give as a gift and to whom do you give it?
What’s the one book you read as a kid that has stuck with you?
A High Wind in Jamaica—and The Shrimp and the Anemone. Weirdly, even though I used to read a lot as a kid, it was more like I loved being read to. I remember very vividly my grandfather reading me The Hobbit, and it's not like I loved that book so much, but there was something about all the voices. It was a bonding experience in that way.
What’s the one book that never fails to delight or inspire you?
Henry James' The Portrait of a Lady, because it’s just so rich and there are so many layers. I love the scenes in Rome toward the end.
If you could only read one genre for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?
Oh, god. The things I most like are those ones I can't categorize. I have these very ordered bookshelves, and I have one shelf which I can't pin down. So, it's like: I Love Dick, The End of the Story, collections of short stories where there’s a thread between them but you're not sure if it's really a novel or not. Like Maggie Nelson—is that memoir, is that part fiction, is that academia? Those are exactly the kind of books I love. So really, that would be my genre: the one which doesn't have a shelf.